Ageism in tech: a history, what we can do to help, and more

Jul 15, 2021 - 10 min read
Erin Schaffer
editor-page-cover

At a Stanford event many years ago, Mark Zuckerberg famously said: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter.”

Today, this mindset still exists in tech. In this article, we’re going to discuss ageism in the tech industry. We’ll start with the history, learn about some ways ageism manifests in the workplace, and offer some actionable ways to tackle ageism.

We’ll cover:

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A history of ageism in tech

Tech has a long history of ageism. Tech is known to be a “younger” field, focusing on new ideas, modern innovations, and creating for the future. The industry is fast-paced and constantly evolving, and many people believe that older workers can’t keep up.

It wasn’t until 1967 that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed. This act prohibited discrimination against workers over the age of 40. Over 50 years have passed since then, but age discrimination still exists today. In 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that age-based harassment claims more than tripled between 1992 and 2017. Oftentimes, these experiences are brushed under the rug and are never really addressed.

The prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace causes older workers to feel threatened, miserable, and out of place. Older developers worry about the stability of their careers, which leads to stress, imposter syndrome, and issues with self-worth. Age discrimination manifests in many different ways, with older workers being harassed, excluded from corporate morale events, and much more. Career development offerings are designed for younger workers who are ready to climb the career ladder, but they tend to leave out opportunities for advancement for older workers.

In recent years, major tech companies have faced lawsuits related to age discrimination. The 2020 Stack Overflow Developer Survey showed that less than 9% of all professional developers were 45 or older, which helps support the claim that tech has a very high population of younger workers. Ageism is a bias that doesn’t get addressed much publicly, but many individuals share their experiences on the internet.

Individual experiences

A 2018 EEOC report found that 60% of people over the age of 50 have seen or personally experienced ageism in the workplace, yet only 3% reported it. Although the number of reports is staggeringly low, we can look to places like Reddit and Quora for personal stories from individuals who have experienced ageism in the tech industry.

While there are many different stories across different sites, I gathered similarities across different personal experiences. Some include:

  • Age-related remarks from colleagues or managers
  • Feeling like they were receiving fewer callbacks because of their age
  • Experiencing stress and anxiety about being laid off
  • Feeling left out of planned corporate events
  • Potential employers not willing to pay them more money to match their experience
  • Experiencing imposter syndrome
  • Not having good career development programs
  • And more

Those experiences are just a handful of the shared experiences from affected individuals. The widespread ageism in the tech industry discourages older workers from even applying to positions because they assume they’re “too old”.

The truth is that age diversity within the workplace has a positive impact on productivity and engagement. Older workers bring in many more years of experience, and their breadth of knowledge contributes to a stronger workforce. When products, apps, and services are developed in an environment with unequal representation, we end up overlooking important insights.

Although we can’t eradicate the problem overnight, there are many things we can do to jump-start a change. Let’s take a look at some constructive ways to tackle ageism in the tech industry.

Ways to tackle ageism in the tech industry

While we all have a lot of work to do, there are many things that we can do to help fight against ageism in the tech industry. I’ve outlined some actions that you can take, and then we’ll move onto some ideas for how companies can make a change.

Work for yourself

Instead of working for others, become your own boss. As long as you stay up to date with relevant skills, focus on maintaining a strong professional network, and build a solid portfolio, then this is a great path for you.

Keep learning

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to continue learning. Show potential employers that you’re a lifelong learner. This will demonstrate that you still have a passion for and interest in the field. A plethora of skills can help you overcome potential ageism in the workplace or in hiring efforts. Keep up with new tech trends, languages, technologies, and best practices. When seeking out new information, it’s important to remember to focus on what’s relevant to your desired outcome.

If you want to expand your role within your current company, figure out what knowledge and skills they value there. If you’re looking to move companies, research your top choices to gain a deeper insight into what you should focus on in your learning. If you’re new to tech or transitioning from a completely different industry, leverage your existing network (or the internet!) to find the most relevant path for you. There are so many great, free resources for you. Use them to your advantage!

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Specialize

If you want to take a slightly different approach, instead of learning many different tools, technologies, and languages, gain deep domain knowledge in one of them. For example, instead of trying to learn a little bit of the most popular programming languages, choose one or two and get as good as you can with them. Many individuals want to gain experience in as many aspects of the field as possible, but an individual with highly specialized experience and knowledge in an aspect of the tech field is very attractive.

Modernize your resume

Take some time to update your resume. A good resume can get you a lot of attention for a potential position. These days, one-page resumes are in. Find ways to showcase your relevant experience within the confines of a single page.

A common piece of advice is to age-neutralize your resume. Instead of highlighting your graduation date and jobs from early in your career, focus on your more recent experiences. You don’t need to list everything on your resume, just what’s relevant. The tech world moves fast, so try to keep in mind that older experiences may not be very applicable to the current job you’re interested in.

With any job, make sure you’re tailoring your resume to fit the position you’re applying for. If you’re applying for multiple positions, it may feel tedious to constantly edit your resume, but I promise it’s worth it! The better your resume matches the job description, the higher your chances of hearing back.

Tip: While age-neutralizing your resume is a common piece of advice, don’t remove all dates from your resume. It’s frowned upon to remove employment dates. As I mentioned, try to focus on your more recent experiences. If you discover that one of your older experiences is noteworthy or relevant, you should include the dates.

Network

If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, chances are you have a decent amount of connections! Tap into your existing network. Let them know what you’re doing and what you want to do. Anyone could be your link to a new position!

You should also work on expanding your network. You can join online communities, groups, and pages where you can meet new people in the field. Connect with interesting individuals on LinkedIn and attend networking events.

Know your rights

It’s against the law for employers to discriminate against you based on your age. You should get familiar with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act so you can better recognize and handle age discrimination in the workplace.

Ways companies can make a change

Now that we’ve outlined some steps that you can take to overcome ageism in the tech industry, let’s discuss some ways that companies can make a difference.

Mentoring opportunities

Age diversity is a wonderful thing for any work environment. Instead of widening the gap between older and younger developers, push the two groups together! Mentoring opportunities are a great way for companies to help foster productive, strong relationships between diverse employees. Try pairing a younger developer with an older one. This allows the younger developer to share what’s “new and trendy” and allows the older one to share generational knowledge. It can also help to diminish stereotypes and assumptions about developers of different ages.

Offer individual contributor tracks

Instead of boxing developers into management tracks, offer individual contributor tracks. Not everyone wants to be a manager, and that’s okay. Success shouldn’t only be defined by reaching manager status. Show your employees that they can grow with the company and stick with what they’re interested in.

Benefits and perks

Tech companies are adding different types of benefits to attract candidates such as flexible PTO, discounts on company products, tuition assistance, transportation allowance, and more. Unfortunately, we don’t see many benefits geared specifically toward older workers. Consider adding new benefits to your package such as:

  • Financial planning for retirement
  • Counseling on Medicare and other insurances
  • Policies for residential home support
  • Roles for retirees
  • An employee resource group (like the Google Greyglers)

Be aware of implicit bias

Implicit bias describes when we hold certain beliefs about, associate stereotypes with, or have attitudes toward different groups of people without our conscious knowledge. These biases are “implicit” because we may not be aware of them. These implicit biases can cause us to treat others in hurtful ways.

It’s important to have a strong leadership team that’s conscious of their implicit biases and others’ implicit biases. These individuals should work with the leadership team, along with employees at every level, to determine ways to recognize and address implicit bias in the workplace.

Remember, this isn’t just about leadership. This is something that each and every developer should strive to do for a more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming workplace. It’s not always easy, and it’s okay to make mistakes. The important thing is that we’re trying and learning and that we’re open to change.

Wrapping up

The tech industry has a history of age discrimination. Tech is known to be trendy, modern, and constantly changing. Many individuals have implicit biases toward older workers, assuming that older workers cannot survive in a fast-changing and contemporary workplace. Those implicit biases cause people to behave in ways that exclude, undermine, and hurt older workers.

In order to move forward, we all must recognize our implicit biases, engage in honest and open conversations, and make a conscious effort to put an end to our negative behavior. Making changes isn’t easy, but we can all work together to help tackle ageism in tech.

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WRITTEN BYErin Schaffer

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